Ponce on Flash Clash: Past Lapses “Can’t Happen Anymore”

by Gunnar Berndt

Former El Tri star, Strykers host unbeaten Mexicans Sunday

Ontario, Calif. — Coming off a dramatic overtime win over the visiting St. Louis Ambush, the Empire Strykers face a Herculean task this coming Sunday as they look to make it consecutive home wins in their clash with the 13-0-0 (win-losses-overtime/shootout losses) Monterrey Flash. Grasping on to their playoff hopes by a thread, the 3-9-0 Strykers are under pressure to succeed in a mission that is as straightforward as it is daunting: stay in contention by upsetting the best team in the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL).

Empire takes on Monterrey this coming Sunday, February 4, 2024, at 4:05 p.m. PT. Tickets to the crucial match at Ontario’s Toyota Arena are available here. All the action will be streamed live in English on Twitch and in Spanish on Canela.

The Strykers experienced an emotional rollercoaster ride in their January 28 win over St. Louis. Having led by three goals at intermission and by four in the game’s third quarter, the Southern Californians gave up five straight tallies to find themselves down 6-7 with the final whistle imminent. However, instead of suffering a repeat of the events that had transpired in the loss to Tacoma three days prior, Empire forced overtime by way of a deflected Momo Gueye shot that leveled the match with less than six seconds left. Mexican star Marco Fabián then scored the golden goal to send the home crowd into a frenzy.

While Justin Stinson led the Strykers attack with four assists on the day, Fabián and Stefan Mijatovic shared a close second at three points apiece. Midfielder Fabián wasn’t the only ex-El Tri and Chivas de Guadalajara ace who found the net against the Ambush, as recent Empire signing Miguel Ponce scored his debut goal in professional indoor soccer to put his side ahead 3-1 in the second period. Ponce provided a nuanced assessment of the wild encounter with the Ambush.

“The fans liked it because it was a spectacle, but it didn’t need to be so close,” he said. “When we were several goals up, it almost seemed easy, but then the game became very intense. In my experience, when you have a big lead, sometimes you become too relaxed. That’s a big mistake. It’s why we came out of halftime the way we did on Sunday. In the last quarter, both Tacoma and St. Louis tied it late and then quickly scored again. Those things can’t happen anymore. At the same time, I’m happy because we got the win and because I scored my first goal.”

For his maiden indoor netter, Ponce nodded home a pinpoint Stinson cross at the doorstep. Long-time Chivas and Mexico teammate Fabián was first to offer his congratulations and a heartfelt embrace.

“When I was on the field for the first time, I saw that St. Louis was positioned really close to the middle and leaving space behind their backs,” recalled defender Ponce. “I told (Gerardo) Jurado to give me the ball there when I’m open, but then I made the same run when Stinson had it. He looked up and saw me, and he gave me a great pass, so I only had to touch the ball into the goal. I’m getting more comfortable in every game. Even though I have to be responsible and protect my own goal first, I know I can score more.”

Following the match, the Strykers players signed a soccer ball to commemorate Ponce’s first MASL tally.

“For now, I’ve put that ball somewhere I can’t lose it,” said Ponce. “When I go back home to Guadalajara, I’ll put it with the jerseys I’ve collected over the years. It will get a very special place.”

Empire’s win over the Ambush rekindled a bit of hope for a postseason berth, with the club having missed the knockout rounds in back-to-back attempts. The Strykers currently sit just outside the Western Conference playoff picture in fifth, trailing the fourth-place Chihuahua Savage by seven points and the third-place Tacoma Stars by eight. With half of Empire’s campaign in the books, Chihuahua and Tacoma each have two games in hand on Head Coach Paul Wright’s men.

Strykers ‘keeper Brandon Gomez is third league-wide in saves (129). While defender-turned-forward Mijatovic is still tied for tenth in blocked opposition shots (20), captain Israel Sesay (15) ranks second on Empire in the category. Fabián is his team’s undisputed attacking leader, sitting tied for third in the MASL in points-per-game average (2.6 in 9 games) as well as tied for tenth in assists (10), tied for ninth in both points (23) and goals (13), and tied for seventh in power-play goals (7).

Stinson has his team’s second-highest points-per-game average (1.6 in 11 games), second-most points (18), and second-most goals (12). Jurado and Mijatovic are joint runners-up in assists (7 each).

In Sunday’s meeting with Monterrey, the Strykers are likely to face an even sterner test than they did against St. Louis. Having dominated the Eastern Conference thus far, the Flash has scored the most goals in the MASL at a whopping 110 in 13 games. Head Coach Luis Jaime Borrego’s squad, which finished third in the West last season, has only given up six more goals (55) than the San Diego Sockers, who have three more games left to play than Monterrey.

The Flash most recently earned a pair of victories in a home-and-away series against the Milwaukee Wave. After downing the Wave 9-4 at Arena Monterrey on January 23, five days later the Mexicans bagged a hard-fought 4-3 overtime win at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.

The Monterrey roster boasts forward José Antonio Medina, who recently returned from injury and is fourth league-wide in points-per-game average (2.5 in 4 games). Aside from Medina, the Flash has been spreading out its impressive attacking output across a number of players, including the dynamic trio of Genaro Castillo (1.8 points per game in 13 games), Alexis Espinoza (1.4 in 13), and Edgar González (1.4 in 12). Castillo is tied for third in the MASL in assists (13), and his teammate Jhon Ponce (10) is tied for tenth. Castillo also sits sixth in the league in points (24), with Espinosa (18) ranking second on Monterrey.

González is his side’s top goal-scorer (12), the runner-up position being shared by Castillo, Espinosa, and Ismael Rojo (11 each). González, Castillo, Rojo, and Jorge Luis Cortés are all tied for fourth league-wide in game-winning goals (2 each).

Defensively, Monterrey is led by Berna Valdovinos, who tops three of four statistical categories for MASL goalkeepers. In addition to having earned the most wins (10), the 39-year-old holds the lowest goals-against average (4.13) and the highest save percentage (.775). Meanwhile, Valdovinos’ teammates Uriel Zuart (22) and Rojo (20) are tied for sixth and tenth in the league, respectively, in blocked opposition shots. Another noteworthy member of the Flash is 44-year-old veteran Walter Ayoví. A former star of the Ecuadorian and Mexican first divisions, Ayoví also represented Ecuador at the 2002 and 2014 FIFA World Cups.

“I’m familiar with some of their players.” said Empire’s Miguel Ponce when asked about Sunday’s opponent. “For example, I know Ayoví is very good because I played against him when I was with Chivas. Monterrey is undefeated and the best team in the league right now, so we need to be positive and play with a lot of energy. If we work hard and move the ball the way we did in the last two games, our attacking connections make us very dangerous. As long as we stay focused, we can be a difficult opponent.”

Miguel Ponce and the Empire Strykers take on high-flying Monterrey this coming Sunday at 4:05 p.m. PT. Tickets for the clash at Toyota Arena in Ontario are available here.